Sailing against the tide

Yachts have been Varsha Gautham’s vessel of choice since she was six. Now she’s in the team trying to bring laurels for India from Jakarta

Unlike most other millennials, Varsha Gautham, possibly unbeknownst to herself, had already begun following her dream at the age of six. Soon after she moved to Chennai from Coimbatore with her parents, she became interested in sailing, and accompanied family friends on pleasure trips frequently. At 20 years of age, she has never been part of a losing side and is battling it out alongside her teammates in the Asian Games in Jakarta.

Varsha studied at the National Public School in Chennai and started competing in sailing competitions and championships in 2007 when she was nine years old.. “She was always keen on water sports,” says her father and team manager, Gautham Padmanabhan, adding, “But we really knew that she was looking at sailing competitively after she got her Under 12 gold medal at one of the national sailing events.” Former chief coach for the Indian sailing contingent Pete Conway was the one who recognised Varsha’s talent and urged her to explore it further.

However, she soon realised that it would be difficult for her to balance both academics and her commitment to the sport. She found herself hard pressed for time and had to drop out in class 9. Her school was very supportive about her decision to pursue sports, as she recalls, much like her family had been from the very outset. “She was always a good student, so we were confident that she would do well even away from the regular schooling system,” said her father. But determined not to compromise on her education, Varsha enrolled in the National Institute of Open Schooling, and was home schooled from class 9 to 12. She is now in her third year in college, studying Sociology.

Padmanabhan reminisces about his young daughter’s foray into the world of competitive sports, narrating the various ups and downs they had to brave in the long drawn out process. “A day that I will never forget in Varsha’s journey is when she decided to take up sailing full time and move to Mumbai to buck the system.” He is thankful that they never had to face any resistance from family and friends. “It was a very slow but determined process, and the family was aware of all the decisions Varsha was taking. So, besides some comments about the importance of education, nobody was really against it,” he says.

With the help of Pete Conway and her local mentor Amish Ved, Varsha was able to stay on her chosen path. “The day Varsha won the India International Regatta will always be etched in my memory,” recounts Padmanabhan, “It was a mixed fleet and the boys’ teams were expected to win.” Defying popular expectations, within a couple of races, Varsha’s team gained the upper hand, and beat their way to the top of the board in the final race.

The biggest hurdle came from the Yachting Association of India (YAI). Typically, teams are supposed to be funded for training and equipment all year round, but the federation tends to pull some of the funding in the off seasons, making it difficult for the teams to train. So much so, that the whole cost of the Asian Sailing Championship a couple of months ago had to be entirely self-funded by Padmanabhan, who is in the interiors business. The lack of support from the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association and the YAI was so demotivating that they had to move to Mumbai in 2017, to sail under Aquamarine Sailing Foundation. The amount required to see a team through the Olympics is approximately Rs. 1.5 to 2 crore. However, the sponsors as well as the family was able to raise up to 80 lakhs, which has been nearly exhausted in the last 18 months. “We have been on a shoestring budget since March this year,” frets Padmanabhan.

Going by the records of Varsha’s team (consisting of her and Sweta Shervegar, an accomplished sailor and national champion), they had already won many laurels to their name (including a bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games), and hence were the most qualified to represent India in the Asian Games. But against all expectations, the federation named a lesser ranked group as the team representing India. This may have been because Varsha and Sweta’s team from AMS Sailing Foundation had consistently demanded better provisions from the federation, in terms of training and equipment.

This decision by the YAI was obviously not taken well by the leading sailing duo in India, and they took the matter to the Delhi High Court . Upon deliberation, the court ruled that only the most qualified should be allowed to represent the country in such prestigious sports events, and justice was served — Varsha and Sweta were cleared to compete in the Asian Games at Jakarta, the finals of which are fast approaching.

But this contest in court also had its repercussions — it continued for so long that it took away from Varsha’s training time considerably. They came out of the courtroom victorious, with only a handful of days left to prepare for the Asian Games. Despite these odds, the Indian team persevered and are now in the finals. If they qualify in the Asian games, they would have the opportunity to represent India in the Olympics, as the first Indian sailing team to qualify for the Olympics.

Padmanabhan, has been the backbone for the team — collecting funds, taking the requisite legal steps and scouting for help, among so many other things that come with managing a sports team. He even had to give up a decent job at a multinational company and start a business of his own so as to give more time to his daughter and her teammate. “The Olympics is very important for our family, but first and foremost for Varsha. She has been working hard for this for almost 10 years,” he concludes. However, with the funds fast depleting, one cannot help but worry.

One only hopes that the kind of belief and support that Padmanabhan exhibited for his daughter blossoms in more arenas of sports in the country, so that more young and aspiring sportspersons have the chance to shine.

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